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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Rio Grande (1950)


Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Chill Wills and Claude Jarman Jr
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: U
Release Date: 06 April 2020

How to begin? Let alone how to end an evaluation of one of the great neglected John Ford films. As almost everyone knows Rio Grande is the third chapter in the master’s “cavalry trilogy,” a troika he didn’t even know he was making because the other two films, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) were one third passion and two thirds concept packages to get studio blessing. The blessing, of course, is make the damn movie, hire your cronies you trust and follow the old Robert Mitchum rule of filmmaking: “I got paid.”

The post facto hagiography about Ford and company (Wayne, O’Hara and the Ford “company” of actors and crew) rarely sets down into the existential Sitz im Leben of time, place and geography of mind when the cameras actually rolled and theatre audiences actually ate popcorn and cheered the first run exploits of how The Duke and the United States Cavalry saved outnumbered poor white settlers in the American Southwest from vicious hordes of Tribals who were not farmers, cattle herders, miners or even Christians.

Manifest Destiny never looked so good as in the Ford Calvary Trilogy. By the time Rio Grande was shot and premiered in bijous, President Harry Truman, who had ushered us into the age of nuclear war, was now entangled with a Maoist catspaw, North Korea. Rio Grande fit the Geist of the times as well as any spit and polish boot could.

The enemy is that most fearsome of Southwestern Tribals, the Apaches. After all they did look a bit Asian didn’t they? Their ancestors had come across the Alaskan bridge from Mongolia. That made them ancestors of Chi-coms right there on US territorial soil. No matter that Mexico and before that, Spain had held the vast Southwest for almost two centuries. The Apaches of Rio Grande are but a catspaw for the throne of Spain and the government of Mexico City.

In another movie of the time this problem was explained quite succinctly by the Duke. Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) is barely rolling when congenial Mexican pistolero enforcers ride up to Duke, Walter Brennan and the kid (Mickey Kuhn) who will grow up to be Montgomery Clift. The Duke can’t run his cattle here, head honcho smilingly informs. It’s all owned by the barón de la tierra down in Mexico City. The Duke allows that’s hundreds of miles away, to which the gunslinger says, si. The Duke opines that’s too much land for one man and asks who gave it to him? The King of Spain, says the enforcer. And they stole it from the Indians, declares Duke. Maybe so, says the enforcer. Well, says Duke, now I’m taking it from them. The enforcer smiles and notes that many have tried this before, to which Duke says, he’s guessing the enforcer was always good enough to handle those wannabe’s. Oh si, the enforcer says softly, removing his sombrero caballerosamente -- at which moment Duke draws and shoots him dead because he was about to do the same to him. The politique of Rio Grande is no different than this scene from Red River and the America of 1950 which accepted both movies was gung ho in its bracketed absolute truth of self congratulation.

Economics of acquisition and subjugation was not mentioned. But it was there. No different than a conflict in Vietnam which began when the ink was still drying for the Japanese surrender on the decks of the USS Missouri, (see L. Fletcher Prouty’s book The Secret Team) no different than oil, precious minerals or poppies in the wars since Reagan and Thatcher.

So here we are in the then of 1950 and now of 2000. Is the mindset of then palatable for the echo chamber of now? No. Is any conversation about black lives mattering complete without consciousness of red lives mattering? No. I saw a video of a meeting between Louis Farrakhan with guest Tribal chiefs visiting a mosque. One of them told him to select any five members in attendance and that two out of those five, said the Chief, “are us.” Farrakhan didn’t dispute this verbally or nonverbally. He knew it was true.

Indian uprisings occurred in the Southwest into the early 1900s. When these erupted in the central corridor, Oklahoma Indian Territory, f.i., they were characterized by local newspapers as race wars. Invariably the actual ethnicity was red, black and brown, uniting to fight off white hegemony. We are talking about towns now, property owners, mineral rights. And oil.

Rio Grande, set in 1879, with Monument Valley subbing for West Texas because it’s prettier… and more monumental, is the hagiographic hood ornament for this American vehicle of progress. Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) are dealing with Apache attacks from across the Mexican border. His alienated son (Jarman Jr) who’s flunked out of West Point arrives as a private and is soon followed by his mother, Kathleen (O’Hara), Yorke’s estranged wife. She is there to rescue her son from danger and his father’s influence. Even though he hates his father for the pain he brought to his mother, the young Yorke wants to prove his mettle. The scenes between Wayne and O’Hara are as bitter and cutting as anything they ever did together on screen.

Culmination comes when butchery of settlers and crafty tactics of Tribals reach a bloody impasse. The Mexican border must be crossed. International law be damned. In the final showdown the cavalry defends itself not on horseback but digging in at an adobe village. There is one shot, lasting only moments, where heavy wooden doors in a church, with a cross cut out of them have rifles poking through, firing. That sums it all up for me and must have meant something for Ford as well. Rio Grande is his last stamp of heroism onto the culture clash between Anglo-Europeans and Native Americans. In The Searchers (1956) Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is an Indian hater of psychopathic proportions. Ford was too sophisticated not to see and show the race hate implicit in the cavalry trilogy and, if one looks closely, even here he is praising not Manifest Destiny but the bond between brothers in uniform, fighting a thankless war for financial interests motivating the Federal Government. Has there been a war movie since where this is not the bottom line template? Military commitment to defend the burgeoning industrial complex. The only value is the band of brothers.

Ford’s endearment shows in the scenes not in conflict with the Tribals. There is a remarkable sequence where the soldiers, Johnson, Carey Jr and Jarman Jr, answer the challenge of riding horses “like the Romans”— two steeds at once in a show of dare and double dare. Ford told the actors to do it and they did. It endears these Indian killers to us without having to pledge jingoist fealty. Now, know-it-alls are going to say those were stunt doubles. Some, yes. But the actors through the years said it was mostly them. I say, Print the legend. (The end caveat for Fort Apache.)

The black and white cinematography (Bert Glennon) is state of the deep focus art, something Ford was intimate with since Stagecoach in 1939. The music by Victor Young begins under the Republic Studios logo nothing less than an American hymn to… well itself. Key appearances by the Sons of the Pioneers capture the gold record country music group at their apex. The joviality of the music, the brawling between soldiers (Victor McLaglen vs Fred Kennedy, both too tough to have stand ins, is a fisticuff treat), the horsemanship, the appearance that everybody is having a good time, is an infectious counter balance to the battle scenes and trails of settlers straggling in with their families torn apart.

Anyone who wants to virtue signal me about America and race should sit in a room (a tepee no less, near Pioneertown, California) and listen to Apache outrage. Otherwise, you know what you can do to yourself, your goat and your mother. This is a contemporary subject that doesn’t get attention from Office For Action or Black Lives Matter. Cretinous liberals often blurt “But they have casinos now” and one knows the mind for discussion is closed like a clamshell. The Apaches didn’t all die. Movies are done about this issue that lives next door to everyone in the American West of today f.i. Wind River (2017) an American tragedy; Smoke Signals, (1998) an American comedy and many others actually but you have to hunt for them, like the Herculean work of Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Irene Bedard, Chief Dan George and the wonderful Gary Farmer.

Eureka has mounted this classic with all the loving Blu-ray attention it deserves. The 1080p presentation is from a new transfer from the Paramount Studio Preservation Department in 2019. Of course, optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing; a brand new audio track commentary by western authority Stephen Prince; scene specific commentary by Maureen O’Hara; a stand alone video essay on the film by John Ford scholar Tag Gallagher. Another archival docu Along the Rio Grande with O’Hara; an archival featurette; another archival featurette The Making of Rio Grande; theatrical trailer; plus a booklet with a new essay by western movie maven Howard Hughes along with a new essay by film writer Phil Hoad; a transcript of an interview with Ford himself and excerpts from a conversation with Harry Carey Jr.

If you dear reader don’t have this Eureka gem in your hands and haven’t polluted your brain forever by watching the colourized version (and if you’ve read this review thus far it means you’re not brain dead) try the Peter Bogdanovich documentary Directed by John Ford

This whole page on YouTube is worth a day of your time and will only enhance your experience of Rio Grande.

Ford wanted to make The Quiet Man with his film family but Republic made him make this picture to cover the loss they knew his hymn to Ireland was going to be.

Twice lucky we are.


John Huff

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